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Home sweet Hope

National | From Bill Clinton's report card to the Excelsior Hotel, Arkansas boasts ample reminders-some more subtle than others-that the president slept here

Issue: "Wedgwood shooting," Oct. 2, 1999

in Hope, Ark. - It's hard to drive through Arkansas and not be reminded that President Bill Clinton calls this state home. The people of Arkansas seem to be proud of the connection. They proclaim it when motorists cross the bridge over the Mississippi River at Memphis: "Arkansas the Natural State, Home of President Bill Clinton." They proclaim it again at Little Rock: "Welcome to Little Rock: The First Capital President Clinton Called Home." And again near Hot Springs: "President Bill Clinton's Hometown." And yet again at Hope: "Birthplace of President Bill Clinton." But not all the reminders are deliberate. A motorist crossing the Arkansas River on I-30 into Little Rock will catch a glimpse of the infamous Excelsior Hotel on the right. That's the place where the president allegedly propositioned Paula Jones. A few blocks south is the Rose Law Firm, housed in a nondescript building with a sign announcing that it's the oldest law firm west of the Mississippi. The informal tour of Clinton sites goes from the Old State House, where Clinton staged election victory celebrations, to the federal courthouse where the Whitewater grand jury did business for so many years. But even after all the scandal, diehard Clinton fans still stand proud. In the Andina Café and Coffee Roastery, owner Eduardo Gomez displays a framed copy of a clipping from the local paper describing his own tribute to President Clinton: Mr. Gomez named a coffee he serves "Bill's Decaf Blend." In a 1997 letter to the Clintons Mr. Gomez described the president's namesake blend as "well-balanced, refined, familiar. Powerful but gentle. Ideal for those who have little rest." And for the first lady, he whipped up a Hillary blend that he calls "elegant, bright, strong." South of Little Rock toward the Texas border are Mr. Clinton's two hometowns, Hot Springs and Hope. Hope was memorialized in the video shown at the 1992 Democratic convention-a video still shown at the town's visitors center. Hope didn't have a visitors center before Mr. Clinton became president. That's because the town was not a huge tourist destination, except on one weekend when it hosted an annual watermelon festival. But President Clinton's election in 1992 changed that. In 1994 Union Pacific donated its 1892-built, red brick train station to the city, which received $700,000 in federal and local money to turn the building into a museum and visitor center. The museum has exhibits on local history and railroads, but Bill Clinton is the main attraction. His glowing first-grade report card includes this comment from the teacher: "Incredibly intelligent for a child of his age." Photographs of Uncle Buddy, for whom the presidential dog is named, and other mementos connect the president with long-time residents of Hope. For those interested in political irony, a display case is devoted to Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee, who assumed the office when Clinton friend and successor Jim Guy Tucker went to jail for Whitewater-related crimes. Gov. Huckabee and his wife are Hope natives and graduates of the local high school. But some of the town's Clinton boosting actually brings discredit on the town. The Hope Tourism Commission website includes this statement: "Friends, family, churches, schools and the all-American lifestyle found in Hope are credited with first planting the traditions, values, and ideals that shaped a President." Really? A "presidential driving tour" directs people from the visitors center to several sites associated with the president, including his birthplace home, an attractive two-and-a-half-story house that was actually the home of his grandparents and is now owned by the Clinton Birthplace Foundation, Inc. The foundation has raised a million dollars to renovate the house and build a visitors center and memorial garden in honor of the president's mother. At the Presidential Shoppe on the birthplace grounds, tourists can buy assorted Clinton mugs, T-shirts, key chains, and other doodads. Pride in their native son did not keep the state legislature, controlled by Democrats, from embarrassing the president on his visit last March to Hope for the dedication of the memorial garden. Days earlier the Arkansas House of Representatives failed to approve a half million dollars of state funding for the birthplace foundation. The $500,000 would have funded a 40-seat theater and computer room in addition to other improvements. Its sponsor hoped to give the president a copy of the bill at the garden dedication. Instead, for at least a moment, Arkansas withdrew the welcome mat.

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Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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